Will Oregon go to pot?

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Political coincidences are uncommon. Political accidents are even more exceptional. The seemingly piecemeal progression toward the legalization of marijuana in Oregon and other states has been well-planned and orchestrated, and could not be described as either an accident or a coincidence. It has also, unfortunately, lead to unintended consequences for residents of the states who have opted to be first in line to be a testing ground for these new policies.

The efforts to legalize marijuana in Oregon have generally corresponded with the timeline for doing the same in Colorado. For the most part, the same organizations have implemented similar methodology to successfully advance legalization of pot in both states, as well as Washington.

In Colorado, the use of medical marijuana was made legal in 2000, medical marijuana dispensaries were established in 2009 and the recreational use of marijuana was legalized, by initiative petition, in 2012.

Oregon has been led down a similar pathway. Most recently, through initiative petition, our state legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana last November.

When Colorado first considered legalization, proponents of recreational marijuana made several claims to bolster their case. They said, among other things, that traffic fatalities would be reduced because users would switch from alcohol to marijuana, and that the drug does not impair driving to the same degree. It was also stated that the implementation of tight regulations would prevent an increase in use, and especially among the youth.

However, a recent report by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area proves many of the claims made by legalization proponents to be absolutely false. It provides a much clearer look at the ways in which marijuana-related activities are adversely affecting the people of Colorado. The report could also easily be a harbinger of Oregon’s future under current marijuana laws.

Marijuana-related traffic deaths doubled in Colorado, from 47 to 94 per year, between 2009 and 2014.

Colorado’s marijuana-related Emergency Room calls have increased since 2009 by more than 10,000 per year. Emergency room visits have more than doubled, from about 8,000 to more than 18,000. Moreover, the State’s marijuana-related hospitalizations have nearly tripled since 2009.

The annual cost of that increase in hospitalizations, from about 4,400 to nearly 11,500 per year, certainly must exceed $50 million.

Many promoters of the marijuana culture promise significant new state and local revenue from taxes levied as a result of legalization. Marijuana related tax revenue in Colorado have been disappointing. “Marijuana taxes” have raised only about seven tenths of one percent (.007) of state revenue.

Self-reported use of marijuana among Colorado children between 12 and 17 years of age is now more than 50 percent higher than the national average. Marijuana-related school expulsions have increased more than 50 percent since 2009. Last year, more than 5,000 Colorado K-12 students were expelled for the use or distribution of marijuana.

The report also describes a burgeoning interstate and international market for Colorado-grown pot. As previously stated, growing, possessing, packaging, distributing or selling marijuana is a felony under current federal law.

All of these negative outcomes reported in Colorado have occurred in a state where three-fourths of local jurisdictions have enacted outright bans on marijuana. The report states the sale of marijuana for recreational use, and marijuana medical dispensaries, are banned by law or ordinance in 228 of 371 Colorado jurisdictions. The remaining 93 jurisdictions allow either medical marijuana dispensaries, the recreational sale of marijuana, or both.

The current leaders of our federal government have chosen to turn a blind eye towards the enforcement of most federal laws relating to marijuana. The President and his Department of Justice (DOJ) have declined to prosecute when the illegal activities occur within the boundaries of a state where marijuana is legal under state law. The policy of non-enforcement creates confusion and uncertainty with regards to how state and federal laws intersect and operate.

However, DOJ has promised to strictly enforce the laws regarding distribution or sales of marijuana to minors, and regarding the interstate transportation or sale of the drug. Under federal law, providing marijuana to a minor is a felony, regardless of whether the minor possesses a medical marijuana card. Transporting marijuana across a state line, for any purpose, is also a federal felony.

There are other contradictions between federal and state marijuana laws that remain unresolved.

Marijuana is still considered a Class I illegal substance under federal law. So is the writing of a prescription for marijuana use, for any purpose. Nevertheless, Oregon physicians have written authorizations for more than 70,000 medical marijuana cards.

Records show that nearly four out of every five medical marijuana cards are issued for the relief of unspecified chronic pain. The records further show that about 23 Oregon physicians are responsible for issuing approximately 70 percent of all medical marijuana cards.

It is our understanding the average cost for a brief medical exam to recommend medical marijuana runs between $300 and $350. Using those figures, a few Oregon physicians would have earned as much as $21 million authorizing medical marijuana cards. Our state laws actually encourage profiteering by physicians who are willing to ignore federal law.

Federal laws also prohibits banking transactions related to marijuana trade. The federal ban results in unregulated and untraceable cash drug deals. Further, it is unclear how a state or local jurisdiction could effectively collect taxes levied on the marijuana trade without running afoul of the federal ban on marijuana related transactions by federally chartered banks.

An abundance of marijuana can be grown by a medical marijuana card holder, or by a third party authorized to grow for the card holder. Under current Oregon law, a third party may not make a profit through growing and distributing medical marijuana to card holders. Further, the medical marijuana cannot be sold or distributed to anyone other than the holder of a medical marijuana card.

This mandated non-profit industry still somehow managed to fund the services of around 23 high-priced lobbyists to advocate for marijuana sales during the recently concluded 2015 Oregon Legislative Assembly.

Current state records are woefully incomplete regarding just how much pot is being legally grown in Oregon as medical marijuana. Notwithstanding the deficient and inadequate records, we do know that all of the medical marijuana card holders in Oregon could not use all of the medical pot that we do know is being legally grown in the state. They could not possibly use 20 percent of the legal pot, even if they remained stoned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Further, we are unable to document the destruction of any of the remaining 80 percent that we know is being grown. What is happening to that 80 percent? We know it is being grown, but it is not and cannot be used legally.

The better questions are how much medical marijuana is actually being grown in Oregon and what is being done with it.

It should be no surprise that the quality of “Oregon Bud” is widely known. Like Colorado pot, it is already in great demand across the nation and beyond.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed firsthand the unintended consequences of this piecemeal approach to the legalization of marijuana. Our state has been at the forefront of the issue instead of letting other states lead the way. Rather than learning from their mistakes, we are serving as a test laboratory for different policies and regulations surrounding this new enterprise.

The terms “accident” and “coincidence” cannot be properly used to describe a set of circumstances that was so deliberately orchestrated. Prior to the passage of ballot Measure 91 in the November 2014 general election, voters were presented with a variety of marijuana-related measures during multiple elections. Each successive ballot measure was aimed at slowly wearing down resistance and building support for outright legalization.

Proponents of marijuana legalization have succeeded in Oregon, Colorado and Washington. A number of other states appear to be on the pathway to voting on similar measures within the next few years.

Perhaps their voters will be wise enough to learn from the mistakes made by Oregon, Colorado and Washington and change course while they still can.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls